Columns » Ernest Dumas

Against all odds, Obamacare prevailed in Arkansas


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So backward-looking was the Arkansas legislature all winter that you wanted to search the rest of the paper every day for the latest news on the hookworm epidemic and yesterday's lynchings, but then it did something truly progressive.

Implementing Obamacare, which Republicans had sworn oaths to fight, must go down as one of the great modern achievements of the General Assembly. Never mind that it would have been done without the legislature, and more cheaply, if the U.S. Supreme Court had not given states a veto of health insurance for the poorest working people. Virtually alone among Southern and other solidly red states, the Arkansas legislature voted overwhelmingly to subsidize health insurance for everyone in the state whose incomes fall below 138 percent of the poverty line, which may be as many as 250,000 people.

Does that mean the liberal democratic tradition is alive and well in Arkansas? Did it take the Arkansas legislature to finally fulfill the dreams of Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman?

Lest we carry this too far, let it be noted that for 100 days, in one of the longest and most fruitless sessions of modern times, the newly minted Republican legislature did nothing to make a lasting improvement in the lives of Arkansans. Historians were beginning to debate whether the 2013 session was worse than the 1958 legislature, which empowered the governor to close schools to prevent black children from going to white schools and to punish teachers and government workers if they did not vow support for discrimination against blacks.

Or did it even eclipse the legislatures of the 1880s and early 1890s, which set out to nullify the 13th and 14th amendments and restore apartheid in Arkansas society? This legislature, after all, did pass a law to erect hurdles to voting for minorities, the aged and the disabled because they voted for Democrats more often than for Republicans.

In lame defense of the 2013 assembly, much of the backward law will be struck down by the courts because the acts patently violate either the U.S. or Arkansas Constitution: acts to outlaw abortions before 24 weeks, the vote-suppression law, and myriad others. Two years from now, those will be merely bad memories, but the great Medicaid expansion will be doing good works.

So, on the record of the Obamacare alone, has it not been a modernistic lawmaking body? (OK, you still have to account for all the new acts undermining the tax structure and making it even more unjust.)

Over the course of history, no state has a more abysmal history of scorning the health and welfare of its people than Arkansas. Historian Tom Dillard's column Sunday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette gave a good account of that history. Such efforts as the state made were the county poor farms where destitute women and children and blind and severely disabled men were sent to harvest crops for contractors. Even with this legislature, making a profit for a businessman is still a prerequisite for helping the poor.

When the governor and the legislature slashed taxes and spending in the Depression so that the federal government would keep sending commodities to keep the populace alive and pay teachers so that the state would have a few schools, Washington got fed up with Arkansas and stopped all the aid. Fearing mobs, the governor summoned the legislature, created a welfare office and imposed a sales tax and a few liquor taxes to show that the government had some compassion.

Carrying out Obamacare's mandate to insure the health of the working poor must also be viewed against its impossible odds. Republicans throughout the state in the last two elections ran against the "socialized medicine" being imposed by the hated black man in the White House. They blocked the establishment of a state insurance market, where people could buy affordable insurance, forcing Washington to establish the Arkansas exchange.

As people learned what Obamacare really did, it became clear that it was an unalloyed good thing. Not only would it improve the health of a quarter-million people, it would be a bonanza for doctors, hospitals and other providers, infuse hundreds of millions of dollars into the business economy, reduce state spending for a few years and leave room for Republicans to lighten the yoke of taxes on corporations and millionaires. But they had to scramble for a way to justify voting to implement Obamacare. They suggested requiring all poor workers to buy plans from insurance companies through the Obamacare market, with 100 percent government assistance, rather than insure their care through regular Medicaid.

Of course, that was an option under Obamacare, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had published rules in January for states to do exactly that. When Governor Beebe approached Washington about doing it "the Republican way," the reply was "of course." But Republicans could claim to have fixed Obamacare.

That is just good politics. Republicans still had to appease the tea-party flank, which tends to control GOP primaries. More than half the Republicans in both houses had to vote for Obamacare in spite of withering attacks from Americans for Prosperity and other groups that had helped finance their elections.

Governor Beebe brokered a hallway pact between Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson and Rep. Ann Clemmer, opponents in next year's GOP primary in Little Rock, both of whom feared that the other would switch and vote against Obamacare and cinch all the votes of angry tea partiers.

In the northwest corner, a few voted to help the poor although the Republican newsletter in Benton County carried thinly veiled threats that under the cover of the Second Amendment they could rightfully, though perhaps not legally, be shot for their apostasy.

We didn't expect such profiles in courage from that quarter.


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